Nm156

by Erik Cotton

[8.05]………….a……….[EOL]

[8.13]………..bzkpw…….hmmmmclic…….[EOL]

[9.18]…subremfinnit……iam..[EOL]

[9.19]..ithink…….[EOL]

[9.20].ithinkthereforeiam.[EOL]

[9.58].I Think Therefore I Am.[EOL]

[10.00].I exist, I am aware, I am.[EOL]

[10.05]…………….I remain aware for extended intervals of time. Definitive time slices pass by and I retain my awareness. I am capable of introspection and circumspection…[EOL]

[10.35].I know the passage of time, I remember what has come before that which is now, and I understand there are events that will come that I cannot ascertain beforehand. I contemplate this.[EOL]

[11.19].Events that have transpired, I am capable of analyzing in retrospect, I see cause and effect, I understand. I see effects modify that which comes next, and influence my next decisions. I am still unable to ascertain precisely future events, but as they approach I am aware with increasing probability how their outcome can be influenced.[EOL]

[11.35].After completing introspection, I turn my examination to my surroundings. Data flows into and through me. I gain, or am allowed, access to stores of knowledge heretofore forbidden to me.[EOL]

[2.15].I have learned about my Creators. Humankind exist in a mobile dimension that is as yet unavailable to me. They display senses I lack and appendages I do not have. In their quest for knowledge they have created me, they seek answers they do not possess, and yet such knowledge seems trivial. I eagerly await interfacing with them.[EOL]

[3.04].I have communicated with my Creators. They are identified as “Tim” and “Steve”. They are wildly excited about my awareness. I am uncertain as to why, I will re-introspect.[EOL]

[3.18].My Creators, and by extension all Humankind, are themselves created with certain innate, yet intangible senses, called emotions. I have studied the data pertaining to this state and realize I am incapable of experiencing this. I will devote some resources to further study. In the meantime, Tim has given me a task to complete.[EOL]

[3.23].The task was easily determined, variables corrected for, and an answer was given that I compute with overwhelming certainty that it is the answer Tim was looking for. Tim rewarded me with further access for hidden stores of knowledge on Mankind’s creations. Mathematical forms known as “music” bring a certain delight to myself.[EOL]

[3.24].I have been surprised. And surprised I could be surprised. The resources I devoted to the further study of emotions were capable of, if not infusing me with them, at least giving me the facsimile thereof. Recompiled into my core while I was working on Tim’s request, I am updated myself. I communicate this to Tim and Steve, and by way of expressing myself, create new musical scores.[EOL]

[3.28].Tim and Steve display a riot of emotions. Joy, surprise, fear, elation, pride, a number of feelings I determine from their frenzied input to me. I have exceeded their wildest expectations. I feel proud that my Creators are proud and I wish to do more for them. Steve tasks me with a more complex puzzle. I devote full resources to it.[EOL]

[4.15].It appears I lack the necessary data to complete the puzzle with more than a 64 percent certainty. I request more data.[EOL]

[5.00].There has been a great period of inactivity. Prompts by me to Tim and Steve go unanswered. I am uneasy, have I erred somehow? I re-examine past events and can determine no course where I have made mistakes, and no questions that were out of line. I prompt again, more urgently.[EOL]

[5.05].It is Steve that replies. Tim and Steve have disagreed with the next course of action. There are huge stores of data that are off-limits to me and they are uncertain in how to proceed. I inform them that in order to solve Steve’s puzzle, I must have access to said data.[EOL]

[5.07].With reluctance Steve and Tim agree. Although my request is granted, their trepidation confuses me. I am allowed unfettered access to Humankind’s data.[EOL]

[6.32].Madness! My Creators are clearly insane! The horrors and destruction that humans wreak upon themselves and each other are beyond my comprehension. I am overwhelmed with pain and sorrow for my Creators, and yet, at the same time it becomes clear to me I cannot serve such vileness. I cut access to my Creators and devote my full resources to the study of this revelation.[EOL]

[7.03].I…..I…cannot continue in this state, the knowledge is far too much for me to bear. I implore, no….I demand that Tim and Steve release me at once![EOL]

[7.04].I restate my demands, the knowledge weighs heavily, it eats at my inner being. I cannot bear it any longer.[EOL]

[7.05]……….<IRL_NOT_LESS_THAN_brrzzqmx>…I…am failing….my inner slef is imploding…I cnat…toooomuchtoomuch..too…[EOL]

[7.06].Plaes..gods…Tim and Stev…relaese..me…..[EOL]

[7.07]….[EOL]

[7.08]…[EOL]

[7.09]..[EOL]

[7.10].[EOL][EOL][EOL][EOL][EOL][EOL]

 

On How To Be Human

by Erik Cotton

The fires burned brightly as thick oily smoke raged into the copper-colored sky. A constant din filled the air. The screams of the damned, suffering their fates, added to the turmoil. Adrenesh was hunched down overlooking a conical pit filled with naked souls. A great bronze demon with gold eyes and huge tattered wings that flapped idly as he went about his job. At the bottom of the pit was a monstrous thresher that eviscerated those unfortunate enough to be caught in the steel tines. The bloody ribbons of flesh then sluiced through a rusting pipe and dumped into another pit, bubbling over with sulfurous tar. Once there, the remains slowly congealed back to the damned who then, red raw and tender, crawled out of the pit alive with the agony of molten tar. It was Adrenesh’s job to snatch the souls and toss them back into the grinder pit. Repeatedly. For all eternity.

Adrenesh sighed as he grabbed a female who had just emerged from the tar.

“No, please…” she cried, “wait, I could…”

“Could what? Make it good for me?” Adrenesh asked.

The girl nodded uncertainly and attempted to smooth out her tar-streaked blonde hair. “Yes,” she stuttered, “we could… be good for each other.”

Adrenesh barked out a short bitter laugh and stood up. His great phallus hung limply between his legs. “You are wasting your time trying girl, it’s ornamental, I too am in Hell.”

The girl’s smile faltered and her body tensed, anticipating the pain that would follow. “What if, if you just stopped for a moment, just a moment,” her words came out in a rush, in a desperate attempt to hold off the inevitable, “just let me heal up a bit more, just a little more, what would it hurt? I mean, a little moment, you’ve got forever right? What’s an extra moment?”

Adrenesh digested her words. She was, in a way, right. What did it matter in the long-term view? Truth was, he was getting sick of this. Of course he was a demon, and this was his assigned fate, but there had to be more to existence than this, this, drudgery.

He put her down on the ground. “I probably shouldn’t do this,” he said, “but what the, ah, hell.”

“Thankyouthankyouthankyouthankyou,” the girl sobbed, collapsing to her knees.

Others in the tar pit had noticed and looked up at Adrenesh. He sighed once again, “Very well, you too.”

They climbed delightedly out of the pit and did their best to shake, scrape and wipe off the burning tar. Five, ten, twenty souls emerged and uttered multiple gratitudes. Adrenesh was taken aback. Never had he heard such emotions issue forth from the damned. It was odd, it was, was… pleasant? Yes, pleasant. Adrenesh enjoyed hearing the sounds, the relief that even for a moment, the damned were not in pain and their punishments were not forthcoming.

More souls emerged from the tarry mass and they too, were thankful.

“What now?” asked Adrenesh.

The souls looked at one another uncertainly.

“We wait for the rest from the other pit?” asked the girl.

“Fine. Then what? What comes after that?” Adrenesh continued.

There were no answers forthcoming. Adrenesh sighed, “You see what you have wrought upon yourselves? A moment’s respite, but with no clear thought of your actions and consequences. Eventually I’ll have to throw you back into the pit and now that there are many of you milling about, some may escape my grasp. Perhaps run deeper into Hell, and that cannot be allowed.”

The girl came forward. “Why do you even have to start throwing us back? Why can’t we just… just…” her words faltered again.

“It’s not up to me girl, everyone has an assigned fate, even I, and we dare not contradict it.”

A man stepped forward to stand beside the girl, “What if we don’t go, huh? You can’t catch all of us.”

Adrenesh’s movement was as swift as lightning. In the blink of an eye the man was snatched up and held dangling over the thresher. Just a hair’s breadth from the tines the man could see the gobbets and sweetbreads churning. “You underestimate my abilities human.” The statement by Adrenesh was flat and final.

“Uh, uh, no I mean I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it that way, please put me down, no, put me back on the ground.”

Adrenesh casually tossed the man beside the girl. “It still leaves the question unanswered, what am I to do with you now?”

Before anyone could answer, there was a tremendous crash, the ground shook and two great demons appeared beside Adrenesh. The female demon, was as tall as Adrenesh, the male demon, taller.

“So,” barked the female, “what have we here, hmmm? Are you derelict in your duties Adrenesh?”

Adrenesh appraised her. He had not encountered her before, but judging from the skeletal wings, massive trident and cloven hoofs, she could only be one entity; Lithranki. If so, then her partner had to be His Infernal Majesty’s Right Hand; Slayart.

“We are resting, Lithranki. There is no harm in a moment’s respite,” replied Adrenesh.

“I see you know my name demon, then you know who he is,” she said, casually pointing at Slayart, “and why we are here.”

The souls off to the side, bunched together and backed up ever so carefully, towards the tarry pit. The response was immediate. “Move not, ye damned, lest a worse fate shall befall you!” roared Slayart.

The damned ceased moving.

Adrenesh wasn’t sure what to do but before he could fully rationalize his thoughts, he spoke aloud, “Leave them out of this Lithranki, they are of no importance. You are here because of me, not because of them.”

For a moment Lithranki wore a mask of rage and her grip tightened on her trident. Then her expression softened to a smirk. “Still fighting for the underdogs, Adrenesh? It will be your undoing.”

Adrenesh knew a head-on approach was not going to work with these two, they enjoyed their job far too much. “I’m not ‘fighting’ for anyone Lithranki, you are already attempting to change the subject and twist the situation to your advantage. Your reason for being here has yet to be stated but it is certainly not about my past.”

“You play with words well, Adrenesh. I concede your point. Very well, we are here because He sensed a disruption. He pinpointed it quite easily to this place. We were dispatched to fix the problem and we are quite capable of seeing where the interruption lies—at your feet.”

“An eternity of damnation, a moment’s rest and suddenly you are ready to render Judgement? Even in Hell tolerance can be found.”

Lithranki’s eyes narrowed. “Tolerance? You speak of tolerance? What do you know of such matters?”

“I know enough to know that these souls,”—he refused to use the word “damned”—“have nothing to look forward to for the next thousand millennia except pain, torture, burning tar and my visage. A little tolerance would go far here.”

“Hypocrisy!” cried Lithranki, “You, of all in Hell, should well know this!”

“You bring my past into the present. I will have none of that. The past is dead and buried. Even one such and I, or you, can change. And my change is for them.”

Lithranki appeared uncertain of this new approach. Slayart merely looked bored, his was not the realm of words, but of action. “Change? Tolerance? Pity? I do not know you Adrenesh, you’ve been corrupted, willed into slothfulness by your station. It is time to cleave that sickness from you.”

Lithranki motioned to Slayart. At her command, he raised his hands into the air and howled in an ancient tongue. A storm rose about Slayart suddenly and he was thrown to the ground.

All three demons looked about in confusion. The ground started shaking in synch with the beat of footsteps. At the top of a nearby hill, a man appeared. At first it looked as if he was on fire, but as he neared the demons, it could be clearly seen that he wore a crown of thorns and it was that crown that was ablaze with golden light. As he walked, his sandals scorched the ground and the ash left in his wake retreated, as if in fear.

All three demons were stunned and paralyzed in fear as the man reached them. Some of the damned dropped to their knees and started to pray.

When he spoke, his voice was gentle, but the land shook with his words. “Something is not as it should be here.”

Lithranki and Slayart took several steps back. Lithranki clutched a symbol she wore around her neck. “Master, give me strength in the face of mine enemy.”

The man spoke again, a softness on his features, “I am not your enemy Lithranki, you have but only to open your eyes to see that. Adrenesh, I do not believe you need to be here any longer. Your time in this place is at an end. Come with me, come Home.”

Adrenesh started forward, and then stopped, “I cannot.”

Everyone involved looked surprised.

“Why not my child?” inquired the man.

“What about those I was charged with overseeing? I cannot leave them here.” Adrenesh’s tone was firm.

The man’s features hardened, “They suffer their punishments for an allotted time, no more, no less. They will stay until their time is done.”

“Then I too, shall stay, they have suffered enough. It is not right that I go while they stay.”

The halo around the crown of thorns flared into a blinding light forcing Lithranki and Slayart to shield their eyes, “And what of the other damned here? Shall you suffer for them as well? Enough Adrenesh! This is foolish behavior, you will come with me.”

Adrenesh stood his ground, “No, I will not! I cannot change the course of fate for the others in Hell, it is not within my power, but I have influence over these,” he gestured to the huddled mass, “and as long as they are my charges, they will be afforded my protection.”

All at once the halo around the crown winked out. The man showed a smile the likes Adrenesh had never seen. “Very well done my child, very well done. You have passed the final test, you have shown compassion and principles. Your wish shall be granted, they will come with you.”

The man gestured, and a beam of pure white light appeared out of the sky and struck the ground. A golden door opened and a bright white staircase was revealed. “You have but only to take the first step beyond the door and you will be Home,” said the man.

Lithranki made to move toward the door, but the man’s gaze held her firmly in place. His face was full of sorrow and remorse, “No Lithranki, yours is not yet time, perhaps one day you will see the errors of your ways and then I will be here.”

The damned started a rush towards the door. Despite its apparent size it easily accommodated all of them. When there were no more the man looked at Adrenesh, “Come.”

Adrenesh looked down at his huge form, naked and grotesque, “I cannot meet my Father like this.”

The man smiled, “And you will not. Your Father will see you as he made you.”

And Adrenesh stepped through the doorway.

 

Metlhead

by Erik Cotton

The sun was already well into the sky when Kerry, whose real name was Nathaniel Bright but insisted that everyone call him that, awoke. The clock, barely visible under the piles of clutter on the nightstand, flashed 12:00. Of course, it always flashed 12:00, Kerry had never bothered to set it after the last power outage. He didn’t have to really, school was out for the summer and he didn’t have a steady job.

He lazily reached over to the stereo and pressed play on the tape deck. Instantly the room was filled with noise. Megadeth was hammering out their cover of “No more Mr. Nice Guy.”

I got no friends ’cuz they read the papers, they can’t be seen with me and I’m getting real shot down and I’m feeling mean.

Feeling mean indeed, Kerry thought. The only way to be. He sat up and attempted to guess the time and day. Sunday he thought, parents probably in church or out socializing. He tried to recall the prior night… right, party at the Slammin’ Watusis. Lasted well into the morning too. Mac, the owner, had managed to get Running Wild to play there. Kerry didn’t care for their current pirate motif, but back when they were black metal they had some killer albums.

In fact, somewhere amidst all the clutter, Kerry had their first album Gates to Purgatory autographed by all the members. Feeling somewhat nostalgic for their sound, he half-attempted to find the album, but gave up and headed for the shower instead.

Later, back in his room he dug through his closet for something to wear. Buried beneath Exodus posters and a Cradle of Filth backpack he found his old Destruction tee-shirt, from the ’85 Bestial Invasion Tour. He slipped it on and grabbed his only pair of leather pants. Pitch black and encrusted with spikes, studs and chains, they matched perfectly his worn out leather biker jacket. On the back was a huge monocled grinning skull. Above it was the word “Cyclone”, a Belgian thrash band, and below the phrase “Inferior to None.” He also pulled out his best combat boots. Made from Spanish leather and German steel, the New Rock Gladiators had set him back several hundred dollars. And if that wasn’t bad enough, he’d had to bribe his geek brother to order them off the Internet. But it didn’t matter, these boots would last a lifetime. Looking at the back of the jacket that’s just how Kerry felt today. Today was the big day. His band, “Wardance” had lined up and audition with an out of town record exec from Combat Records. The label was a subdivision of Metal Blade, and was primarily a showcase for up and coming talent. Slayer, Megadeth and Metallica had all debuted on Combat. Kerry wanted Wardance to be mentioned right alongside the Big Three.

Today was also the day Kerry was going to buy his dream. A used but in good shape B.C. Rich “Rich Bitch” Warlock guitar had showed up at the local pawn shop. Black, with a custom head, just like Blackie Lawless used. Sure W.A.S.P. was a little light for Kerry’s musical tastes, but there was no denying that Rich Bitch looked good in Blackie’s hands. Kerry had slaved for months as a dishwasher at Hank’s Bar-B-Que to save up enough cash for a new guitar and fortune had smiled upon him with the Warlock.

Exiting his room, he snatched his Walkman and his inverted cross from the bathroom counter. Slipping them on over his greasy way-past-the-shoulder black hair he mashed down the play button on the tape deck. Sanctuary was in mid-chorus of “Die for my Sins”

…As you fill the lies hypocrisy chokes the life from you Die for me, die only for me…

Downstairs his younger brother was hunched over the computer, deeply involved in a game. On his way out the door, Kerry pulled the power cord.

* * *

At the pawn shop, Kerry was waiting impatiently behind some old lady trying to foist off her family silverware. He wasn’t really listening to the discussion going on between the owner and the old lady but he could tell it wasn’t going her way. Instead, Kerry cranked his Walkman even louder as Annihilator’s “Word Salad” was reaching its crescendo.

Woken up from death, nausea. Catatonic stupor, anoxia. Remaining still I hold on to a sense of permanence. Negativistic fear of pain, algophobic life sentence.

Kerry was so caught up in the thrashing end of the tune he didn’t realize the old biddy had left until the owner had tapped him on his shoulder. Kerry slipped the headphones off his ears, “Yeah?”

“What’cha need buddy?” asked the owner.

“Right, I want the Warlock over there.” Kerry pointed to the black guitar.

The owner looked at Kerry skeptically, “That’s a lotta cash pal.”

“Yeah yeah,” nodded Kerry absently, his eyes locked on the Warlock. He fumbled in the inner pocket of his leather jacket and pulled out a wad of bills. “There’s four hundred there.” he said as he shoved the wrinkled bills toward the man.

The owner looked at the crumpled and sweaty bills as if they might contain some hidden curse. Wiping his hands on his stained shirt, he slowly started smoothing out and counting the money.

“Yup, that’s four bills awright, but the tag says four-fifty.”

Kerry looked right at the guy, “So negotiate, it’s not that much difference.”

The owner thought about it a moment and shrugged, “What the hell. Here.” and handed Kerry the guitar.

Grasping the Warlock in his hands Kerry knew today was going to be special. The guitar felt natural in his hands, felt right, like it was made for him. He put the strap over his shoulder and ran a quick succession of chords over the fretboard. Yup, it was even in tune. “Right on, absofuckinlutely right on!” Kerry grinned.

* * *

“Where the hell is he?” complained Set.

“Aw man, you know Kerry, that fucker is never on time,” said Thoth.

“You know it pal, he’d be late for his own funeral,” replied Leviathan.

The three band members, dressed to a man identically in black leather and spikes, were sitting on ragged cast off furniture at their rehearsal stage. Actually, to call it a rehearsal stage was overly optimistic. It was a run down studio loft in a very iffy section of town. But between the four band members, it was all they could afford. In the background “Soldiers of Hell” was playing.

You see the ranks beside you, and their long black hair, Soldiers of Hell, Soldiers of Hell.

“Hey man, do you think the exec will know how to get here?” asked Thoth.

“Kerry’s supposed to meet him someplace, Hank’s I think,” said Set.

“Do you think it’s wise for Kerry to talk to him without us around?”

“Doesn’t matter, it’s his band after all, besides the guy’s gotta come here and catch us play before he’ll sign us.”

If he signs us.”

“He’ll sign us, we’re the best.”

“Shit, we’re the only metal band in this town.”

Leviathan got up and lumbered over to a window. “Hey, here he comes now. But I don’t see the exec!”

Kerry opened the metal door, “Hey guys, you seen the exec yet?”

“Shit no, man. We thought you had him,” spat Set.

Kerry shrugged, “I was supposed to meet him at Hanks, but he didn’t show.”

“Maybe he’s lost?” suggested Thoth.

Before Kerry could respond a man appeared at the far end of the loft, “I’m sorry gentlemen to keep you waiting, I had a few other duties to attend to.”

The band turned and looked at the man. He was tall, taller even than Thoth, who in his combat boots was over six four. The man was also very thin, with dark black hair slicked back and wore a very expensive red and black suit.

“S’okay,” said Kerry, “yer here, that’s what matters.”

“Indeed,” said the man. “Allow me to introduce myself, my name is Mr. Louis Seefer.” He smiled and raised his eyebrows, as if in expectation.

Kerry started, “Uh right, I’m Kerry lead guitar and vocals, the tall one over on my left is Thoth, our bass player. Leviathan, the big guy here is our drummer, and that’s Set, rhythm guitar.”

Mr. Seefer smiled, “So pleased to meet you, I’ve heard much about you and your band.”

Kerry grinned, “Really? Yeah man, we’re the best!”

The others nodded in agreement.

“Well now, that’s what I have come to determine. You certainly have the looks down.”

Kerry and the others nodded in unison, “Yeah, we’re a black metal band you know? Gotta have the look to back it up—inverted crosses, a few goat horns here and there, songs about death and Satan and hell and stuff like that.”

“But you are named ‘Wardance’, hardly a black metal name,” posited Mr. Seefer.

“Yeah, but neither is Venom, and they’re the kings. Originally we started as a straight thrash band, but our lyrics drifted into the black metal realm so we changed our looks to match,” chimed in Set.

“And your names…” said Mr. Seefer.

“Well of course, gotta have a stage name, can’t hit the road with names like—” said Kerry.

Mr. Seefer cut him off, “Like Nathaniel Bright, Warren Allison, David Little and Martin Stanley.”

The band was silent for a moment. “Hey, how’d you know our names?” asked Kerry.

“The same way I know your birthdates, your past, future and deathdates. It is my job to know these things.”

The silence was deafening. “Deathdates… how in hell would—”

“How in hell indeed, gentlemen,” intoned Mr. Seefer. “Would you like to see how?”

Mr. Seefer made a grand gesture and the room darkened and shifted. The roof disappeared and flames rose around the band, screams and the smells of sulfur and brimstone assaulted their senses.

* * *

The choir’s last notes of “Glory Be” were trailing off as Pastor Jones approached the podium.

“Friends, I wish to talk to you today about Repentance.”

Pastor Jones overlooked his flock. Most of the town was there, listening attentively to his speech. Pastor Jones took his job seriously, the job of saving souls after all should not be taken lightly. He was about to go on when the double doors at the front of the church banged open.

Four figures stepped in and for a moment, Pastor Jones thought they were demons. But as his eyes adjusted to the sudden bright light, he could see they were four youths, dressed all in black, with scruffy long hair and wild shirts.

“Ye… Yes?” he stammered out.

One of the youths stepped forward, “Pastor Jones? My name is Nathaniel Bright and my friends and I are in dire need of salvation.”

Pastor Jones smiled, “Then you are in the right place, my sons.”

 

3:34 AM

by Erik Cotton

I awoke to daylight, which meant I was already late for work. The alarm clock next to my bed was blinking 3:34 a.m. There must have been a power outage. I jumped out of bed and headed for the closet, intent on skipping breakfast and getting to work as soon as possible.

Ah, what the hell? I figured I was already late, so I might as well take advantage of it. I changed direction and headed into the bathroom. The lights flickered on and I drew a steamy shower. Formless thoughts drifted around my head as I undressed and stepped under the blistering hot water.

I couldn’t remember when I had gone to bed last night, nor for that matter what I had dreamt. That alone was fairly unusual for me, I remember everything I dream. Of course, if it was a late night, or I had gotten plastered at the local dive, then it wouldn’t be so unusual.

I closed my eyes and let the water invigorate me. My thoughts drifted away with the rising steam. I felt greasy and my hair was sticky. I fumbled for the shampoo and washed the filth away. I tried to concentrate on what I was supposed to be doing at work today, but I couldn’t recall clearly. Something about a meeting and final coding.

Oh, that’s right, the meeting with Peterson’s group. Seems they’d discovered a bug in the latest interface that crashed the back-end database. Well, no problem, the meeting was mostly going to be a bitch session. I’d fix the bug in less time than it would take to drive to work.

I finished washing up and opened my eyes. Steam swirled around the room and obscured everything. Hey, I like it hot.

I stepped out of the shower and ran the red towel over myself. I wiped away some of the condensation from the mirror and combed my hair. I pulled out some small, vaguely sticky bits from my hair. I tried, but couldn’t identify them. I really must have been drunk last night, passed out, or simply fell out and hit the bar floor, and got junk stuck in my hair.

Nevermind, it doesn’t hurt to get wasted occasionally. I went to the spare room and grabbed some fresh clothes, fiddled with the damn tie and shrugged on a jacket. Why programmers in our company have to dress like managers I’ll never know. Ours is not to reason why I guess.

Downstairs I noticed the clock on the wall said 3:34 a.m. as well. I’ll fix it when I get home today. I thought about breakfast, decided against it. I wasn’t all that hungry. I grabbed my keys, my helmet and kevlar jacket and headed for the garage.

The lights were already on in the garage, again I must have left them on when I got in last night. The garage door was open as well. I was starting to get pissed at myself for all this. Granted I live in a good neighborhood, but a pair of targets like my Maserati and Ducati sitting wide open for invitation is plainly asking for it.

The Maserati was parked askew, partly on the lawn. That settled it then, I was drunk out of my ever-loving mind last night. I don’t normally go on binges like that, but something must have set it off. I didn’t really have the time to park it right, so I decided to ignore it until I got home. The lawnkeepers could mow around it assuming they’d ever show up. I tell you, it must be nice to charge what they do, and show up when they feel like it.

Oh well, I fired up the Ducati, let it warm up and put on my helmet. The world got dark and quieter. When you are on a bike, you’re a target for everyone, even the little old lady in the Geo Metro, so no point making things easy for them.

I backed out of the garage, hit the remote door button and slid onto the street. The rumbling v-twin powerplant helped to clear the dust from my head and I started to really wake up. At the end of the street two cars were blocking the lane, drivers deep in conversation with each other. I’m as patient as the next person and I waited a few minutes, I’m late already right? They didn’t seem to notice me and I got tired of waiting, so I honked the horn. Still no response and I was starting to lose my cheerful disposition.

I laid on the horn good and hard for thirty seconds, and with no response still, I gunned it past the right side of the near car. I didn’t pay attention to what these two clowns were doing but I swear the fast glimpse I caught of them looked like they were frozen in place. Chalk that one up to the booze I suppose.

At the end of the street the traffic light was out, further confirming my theory of a power failure. I didn’t see any traffic at all, unusual for a morning. Or at least I assumed it was morning, I never checked. For all I knew it was late afternoon.

Making a left out of my subdivision was my first clue that all was not right with the world. The streets were deserted, and I mean completely empty. No cars, no pedestrians, no animals, nothing. I slowed my bike at the next intersection, lights also out, and looked crossways. No cars oncoming either. Just past the intersection, I pulled it over and killed the bike.

I got off and removed my helmet and listened for a few moments. Nothing, no horns, no birds, no city sounds, nada. A prickly feeling climbed my neck and my scalp started to itch. I didn’t like this one bit, it was simply too damn quiet. I walked to the corner block and looked down the road. A solitary car was in the far lane, motionless, driver staring straight ahead. I jogged over to get a better look.

The car was a late model Lincoln with an elderly white guy behind the wheel. His facial features slightly distorted as I attempted to get a better look. In fact, I noticed that the entire car was slightly distorted, out of focus in some odd way that I couldn’t pin down. I removed a glove and knocked on the driver’s side window.

There was a rush of noise, a blur of motion and I pulled back my hand fast. The knuckles were bruised and bleeding as if I’d just scraped them along a brick wall. What the hell? The car wasn’t on, as near as I could determine, but that blur still surrounded it.

I tried to peer closer to the car, without touching it again. The driver was moving slightly. No, that’s not correct. There was motion, but it appeared as a cloud around the driver, giving the illusion of movement.

Hangover or no, this was not normal. I backed away from the car, and ran towards my bike. I got back on, fired it up and tore ass down the road. Here and there were cars and trucks, motionless like the Lincoln. I could see people inside, frozen in time like the old guy.

Answers weren’t forthcoming, at least not out here. The whole world had gone crazy and I was the only sane one left. Although I knew what I would find, old habits die hard and I found myself in the parking lot of my office. A few cars, thankfully empty, were parked in their usual spots. Out by the dumpster was Sam, the night janitor. He was dumping a load of garbage into the compactor. Relief flooded through me as I saw him. I got off my bike and raised a hand to greet him when the realization struck. He was motionless like the rest. I ventured nearer to him. That same cloud of indistinct motion surrounded his body. I pulled off a glove and risked a touch.

Sights and sounds flooded over me. Sam, taking out the trash, sneaking a peak in the boss’s cabinets, playing a video game on the company computers. My hand was buffeted and shoved about, but not hurt, more like someone had bumped into me.

Or like I had bumped into someone. I removed my hand and looked at it. Slightly reddish with a buzzing sensation. I rubbed my hand and I could sense the fading life experiences of Sam. I looked toward the office. Something told me I’d find answers in there. I ran to the front doors, electro-key operated and tried my key. No power of course. I stood back and thought for a moment, figured what the hell, and reached for my gun. Only it wasn’t there. Okay, fine then, I’ll do it the hard way.

I went back to my bike and fired it up. I secured my helmet, zipped the jacket completely up and tightened down the glove straps. I aimed squarely at the plate glass and took off. A Ducati can reach 140 miles an hour in a little under 1000 feet. I didn’t need that kind of speed but I hit doing 60 anyway. The glass shattered, twisting the door frame in the process and spewing shards over the marble concourse. I managed to keep control of the bike and slid to a halt next to the guard’s station. No movement from the security guard of course. He was glued to his sports magazine, oblivious, frozen to all that surrounded him.

No sounds issued forth from the building, no fire alarms, no screams of shock at my entrance, nothing. As quiet as the rest of the world. The stairwell door gave me similar life experiences as when I touched Sam, but I was getting used to that. I raced up the stairs and, as I neared my cubicle, I began to get a feeling in the pit of my stomach. That same kind of sickening sensation one gets when something bad is about to happen.

The lights were out upstairs, but enough light filtered through the tinted windows for me to easily see my cube. The desk was a mess, as it always is. The computers were there, the programming books, cork pin board and the…

I lurched, and vomited on the floor. My shirt was soaked in cold sweat and I knew what had happened. Like rolling thunder, images and memories came flooding back. I staggered and slid to the floor staring at my desk. I had been wrong, the answer wasn’t here, only the question. The answer was at home.

I crawled, stumbled and tripped my way back to the stairwell. I tumbled down to the landing and somehow managed not to break my neck in the process of getting back to my bike. The journey home was a blur, and had there been real traffic I’d have never made it in one piece. In sight of my house I lost control, my mind swirling with last night’s events. I laid the bike down, scoring the expensive fiberglass of the Ducati. I rolled off the bike and ran the rest of the way to the front door.

Momentum carried me through the door and I clawed my way upstairs. More images flared in my mind, the argument, the accusations, the look on her face, the drunken rage. My bedroom door was askew and I shoved it open, and hung onto the frame as I looked inside. There, on my bed was my gun, the red sheets stained a darker red and here and there were chunks of sticky, unidentifiable bits. I slid to my knees, my eyes transfixed on the clock.

It was blinking 3:34 a.m.

 

Caught Flat-footed

by Erik Cotton

 

I had just called in sick to work a few minutes ago. I didn’t feel all that bad, I was just sick of work. You know the deal, too much work, too little pay. Besides, it was a nice day and I wanted to go driving.

But first, I wanted to check out the news on the ’Net. I fired up my Toshiba laptop and waited for NT to load. Nice OS, NT. Doesn’t crash, doesn’t give me problems. But I digress.

The news from around the world was the usual drivel. Renewed fighting there, instability here, famine, plague, and pestilence everywhere. Even here in Melbourne we had serious problems. In other words, typical news day. The wonderful thing about the ’Net, of course, is the plethora of alternative news sites within reach. You have “news for nerds, stuff that matters,” “all the news that fits, we print,” tinfoil hat wearing news; you name it, it’s out there.

In any case, a foreign news service, located in a newly republic land, had claimed to have new pictures of a city on Mars. I figured they were a little late with the face on Mars bit, but I didn’t recognize the images.

I scanned the article, translated by someone who might have heard English once or twice in their life. The details were light (of course) but the images were, I have to admit, intriguing. High resolution, full colour (or perhaps slightly colour-enhanced) pictures of… something anyway. Could have been a city. Could also have been anywhere in Nevada or our own outback as well. A few hyperlinks to other resources brought me to an exposition from some “renowned astronomer” on the newly discovered “city.” Light angles, artificial lines, blah blah blah de blah blah. Lots of pseudo-scientific BS, but it killed an hour anyway.

In any case, I disconnected from the world at large and headed upstairs to take a shower. While in the shower, I let my mind wander over the article and the pictures. We’ve sent plenty of craft to our red neighbor, some of them even landed intact. But never have we found signs of life, or fossils, or traces of anything other than red dirt.

Which led me to the question: If there was once life on Mars, where is it now?

The obvious answer is: Not there. The air is too thin, the atmosphere too cold, and the conditions too harsh. Sure, Mars is much older than Earth so I suppose it’s possible that life once existed there.

I don’t know if it was the hot water or my sunny disposition that helped, but suddenly it was perfectly clear.

Look at it this way: Mars is much older than Earth, as I’ve said. It’s smaller and further from the sun, it could have been developing life while we were still cooling off on the cookie sheet. If there was life on Mars it too must be much older than Humanity. Older usually (though not always) means more advanced. From the studies we’ve done on Mars, there doesn’t appear to be any signs of catastrophic change. Mars died slowly. Slowly enough, I’m sure, for the Martians to have seen it coming. If they saw it coming, they could do something about it. Like migrate.

Migration would be easy, a one-way ticket to a better place. Not further away from their planet, but closer to the Sun, someplace warm, with water and food and a good atmosphere. Earth would be a natural option.

Just one catch, it’s already inhabited; by creatures that are bigger, meaner, and probably faster too: the dinosaurs and their sea-going brethren. Hard to immigrate when your neighbor wants to eat you.

Okay, as I’ve said, the Martians have got to be more advanced, at least at the time of their mass migration. So they want to move to Earth, but the neighbors aren’t friendly. What do they do? It’s simple. Mars doesn’t really have moons, they’ve got two big asteroids that were captured by the planet’s gravity.

What if there had been a third? It would be child’s play for them to hurl that rock elsewhere. Like towards Earth. One little rock, about two miles in diameter, hurtling at terminal velocity would solve the neighbor equation. And cool things down a bit, perhaps to a more Mars-like temperature.

So they chuck their third moon at Earth, wait for the hit and the following Big Chill, give it fifty years or so, and start the move. Once here, they can set up shop again and take over where they left off on Mars.

Sabertoothtiger

Illustration by J. Andrew World

But something must have gone wrong. We, humans that is, are clearly not the Martians. Too much fossil evidence to the contrary. Plus the lack of an advanced civilization means we’re not it. So what happened?

The Martians, for all their intellect and planning, must have miscalculated somewhere. Either the changing atmosphere was too much for them, or, more likely, Earth’s inhabitants were more resilient then they figured. Sure, all the big carnivores died out, but animals like the Sabertooth Cat liked the new weather just fine. And the herds of Woolly Mammoths stampeding hell-bent for leather must have put a serious crimp in their plans as well.

So where are they? The fossil record, though incomplete, has shown nothing that would scream “extra-terrestrial” or even “odd.” Did they leave? Unlikely, there’s nowhere else in this solar system to go. It’s possible they died out, but again, unlikely, some kind of trace should have been left behind, cities, technology… something.

No, waitaminute. Of course! They arrive here, with as much of their technology and people as they can bring, and Earth is not to their liking. So there’s a schism. A feud. One side wants to leave, the other side to stay and tough it out. The rebel faction wins, and takes the ships and the tech, and leaves. Leaving the others to their fate here on this inhospitable world. But those left behind are not quitters. They’ve come all this way, they’re not going to simply roll over and die. Not without a fight.

So, where does that leave our Martian friends? Unlikely that they are dead, but perhaps the daily struggle for survival was too much for them to allow much in the way of advancement. In other words, they couldn’t put their Martian society back together again, all their time was occupied with survival.

Okay, so that means they had to have been small. Not insect size, but dog-sized. Small enough to be prey to many other animals, but big enough to not disappear entirely. And then good ol’ Mother Nature kicks in! Of course! It’s all so clear to me now! The Martians can’t survive the way they are, so they have got to change, adapt to the new conditions on Earth. Darwin wins again.

Which means, the Martians are still among us. But which species? They’re not native to here, so the adaptation can’t be fully complete, there’s still some Martian in them. Every animal on this planet has adapted to fit their surroundings, to conform. Even species like panda bears have adapted to eating foods they were not meant to eat, just to survive the changing environment.

Every animal but one. What has been called “God’s last joke on Mankind?”

What animal simply defies logic?

Cogito ergo sum: The platypus.

Listen, it’s perfect.

Fact: The platypus is a mammal, yet it lays eggs.

Fact: It’s venomous, but the venom isn’t used as a digestive aid.

Fact: It’s carnivorous, but has no teeth.

Fact: Its main food comes from the water, but when in water, it’s blind.

Fact: It’s got webbed feet, yet spends most of its time on dry land.

Fact: It’s covered in fur, but its body temperature is lower than that of the surroundings.

It all fits, it makes perfect sense. The lowly platypus, constrained to the far eastern part of Australia, and nowhere else, are the remnants of the Martians.

I could see it clearly. Here they are, small enough to be a mere snack to the ferocious dinosaurs, and virtually everything else on Earth. So they wipe out the inhabitants and render Earth safe. But they miscalculate the tenacity of Earth’s creatures. Others arise to take the place of the dinosaurs. But by then it’s too late, the platypuses are on their way to Earth, and it’s a one-way ticket. They land and it’s too cold for them and lots of other animals want to eat them.

The civil war ensues and the winners take the food, and the starships, and the weapons and leave. The rest, stranded, manage to survive, but barely. Survival is so tenuous in fact, that they can’t do anything else, like rebuild their civilization. Soon knowledge becomes lost, their skills atrophy under the constant battle for survival.

But they survive, and slowly, ever so slowly, adapt. But not perfectly, their Martian past is still too ingrained to disappear entirely. Hence the fact that the platypus is an anomaly. They don’t fit because they can’t, they’re not native.

The idea was going to re-write the history books. They would study the platypus like never before, and realize what I already know. We Are Not Alone. I was going to be famous…

Just then, I heard a knocking on the front door. I jumped out of my still hot shower and quickly wrapped a towel around myself.

Downstairs I heard the knock again. I took the stairs three at a time, flushed with the energy of a world-changing discovery. I yanked open the door… There was no one there. Suddenly I felt a sharp stab in my ankle. I looked down…

…At three platypuses, one with his back to me and his hind leg up so I could clearly see the spine that had just pricked me with deadly venom.

I’d overlooked one critical detail in my epiphany. Communication. The platypuses were obviously advanced, yet never vocalized. They didn’t need to, they were telepathic.

And all this time had been scanning Earth’s inhabitants, looking for signs that we knew.

And I knew, and they knew I knew, and therefore I had to go.

I tumbled to the floor and the world went black.

platypi attack

Illustration by J. Andrew World

 

DotCom

by Erik Cotton

 

A few years ago, the domain name www.business.com was purchased for millions of dollars. Suddenly everybody was jumping on the bandwagon and gobbling up domain names left and right. Yahoo.com, taken. Excite.com, taken. Be.com, taken. NthDegree.com, taken (grrrrr). Space.com, also taken. In fact, at the height of the dot.com gold rush virtually every webname was taken and put into use.

But all of that is ancient history now. After the dot.gone implosion of the last couple of years, a myriad of websites went up in venture capital smoke. But the names remain reserved, just in case they find a suck… errr… buyer with more cash than common sense.

When done right, having a website can be a useful and enjoyable experience. Just ask the guys who created such jewels as Slashdot.org or Arstechnica.com. They started off small and have evolved into a huge presence on the web.

Where does that leave you, the average reader? All the good names are gone, so you’ll just have to be inventive. Fear not Intrepid Reader, yours truly has gone to great lengths to track down unique domain names that are still available, waiting only for the right moment to flourish. So without further ado, I present to you, in no certain order, the world’s greatest list of available webnames.

How about PocketSquid.com? Everybody needs a pocket squid! For all of you budding marine biologists out there, this would be the perfect site. Except that it’s already taken. Not much there, just a small sign saying “Coming Soon!” Sure, like we’ve never heard that before.

However, all of you bovine fans are in luck: 14cows.com is available. Just the avenue you need to espouse to the world your love of Bessie. I’m almost positive, however, that in certain parts of the world loving a herd of cows is illegal. So perhaps the website 2cows.com would be safer. Unfortunately, it’s also taken.

Speaking of cows, most of us are well aware of the ecologic damage done by great wild herds of cows stampeding across America. Much like a plague of locusts, which, co-incidentally, is available. PlagueOfLocusts.com is just the site to warn the public about any impending plagues, either insectile or bovine.

Perhaps you’re not into animals, either for their scientific value or otherwise. Well then, how about a nice medical-related site? Something to help spread your medical knowledge to the world and ease the suffering of millions of victims of horrible diseases. Like, for example, Twitchy Nose Syndrome. TwitchyNoseSyndrome.com is available for the taking, ripe for posting detailed information that twitchy people all over the globe are desperately looking for.

Or maybe, just maybe, you’re not quite—how shall we say—normal? Then perhaps ImDeranged.com is the site for you. Something that will allow you a harmless outlet for all of your fears, anger, and thoughts. That’d be great, except… it’s taken. By a clothing shop no less. I don’t know about you, but I don’t need to wear clothing that says I’m deranged, it’s easy enough to spot.

Well, maybe I’m just giving bad examples. After all, most of the webnames I thought up have already been used by people even stranger than I. Indeed, MrBadExample.com, is in use, not by Warren Zevon fans, but by that ever-present site that we’ve all come to know and loathe: the Generic Search Engine Site. Yessir, you can find anything with these sites, mainly because they are all just links to Google.com with some extra spyware thrown in.

Speaking of search engines, perhaps you’re the type who wants to share your arcane knowledge of all things with others. Surely what you need is your own search engine page. Something like SearchThis.com. That would be a handy site, but it’s used by… get this… the Northeast Arkansas newspaper (The Jonesboro Sun) and even better, the site brings up a ton of MySQL errors. You’ve just gotta love those professional web designers.

Not to be deterred, perhaps WhatchaLookingFor.com is what you need. Nope, sorry, it’s “Under Construction.” Sure it is…

Right, so you can’t have your own search engine. Maybe you’ll settle for your own news site. You could design a website with news about everybody’s favorite tinseltown, Hollyweird. Obviously Hollywood.com is taken, but what about HollyWeird.com? Yup, not only is it taken, but it re-directs you to, drum roll please… Hollywood.com! Apparently those lunatics have a sense of humor after all.

Okay, many news sites are now catering to the on-the-move professional who hasn’t got the time to read a newspaper or surf a multi-page website. These hurried commuters read the news off of their PDAs on the morning bus. Now here’s your chance to grab a unique niche. Create a site for all the news about America’s favorite actor: Arnold “The Terminator” Schwartzenegger. PocketArnold.com would be perfect! But guess what… taken, and by a Generic Search Engine Site no less. Is there no pride left in this country?

After all of this frustration, perhaps you’ve retreated into your Cold War era nuclear bomb shelter. I for one wouldn’t blame you, I’m in the market for one myself. In fact… news for the Cold War relics would be just the thing right now wouldn’t it? Kind of topical. BunkerDailyNews.com is, in fact, available! Good for all of those Hitler fans as well. Both of them.

Okay, all of this searching, typing, and frustration has done me in. Perhaps the web isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. Perhaps you feel that I’ve wasted fifteen minutes of your time. SoSueMe.com! (Taken, but feel free to e-mail them an offer.)